The political division of the nation is no longer just a metaphor.
Assistant Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday criticized plans for their candidate to sit behind plexiglass dividers at this week’s Vice President debate, objecting to a security measure organizers say would help prevent any viral transmission between Mr. Pence and his Democratic opponent, Senator Kamala Harris.
Mr. Pence’s staff complaint – which was quickly shelved by Ms. Harris’ team – was another salvo in the difficult negotiations over Wednesday̵
Late Tuesday, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said in an interview that after the negotiations, Mr. Pence’s staff had agreed to accept the placement of the plexiglass dividers, which are were installed in the Utah stage of the debate earlier in the day.
Questions still remain about the upcoming debate scheduled between Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. on October 15. Asked Tuesday if he would feel safe discussing the president, Biden told reporters, “I think if he still has Covid, we shouldn’t have a debate.”
Mr. Biden added: “I think we should have followed very strict guidelines. Too many people have been infected. It’s a very serious problem, so I’ll be guided by the Cleveland Clinic guidelines and what the doctors say is the right thing to do. “
The Presidential Debates Commission oversees security protocols during debates in consultation with Cleveland Clinic officials. The commission announced Monday that it would use plexiglass dividers at the event with Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence, as well as requiring candidates to sit 12 feet, 3 inches apart.
But Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, said Tuesday he didn’t want the vice president to appear on national television behind the plastic barriers.
“We don’t think it’s necessary,” Short said. “There is no science to back it up. The tables are 12 feet apart and each participant is tested. It is important to the American people that the debate continues.” Referring to Ms. Harris, he said, “If he’s more comfortable with plexiglass, then that’s fine.”
Biden’s campaign responded that eliminating the dividers would put the health of those in the debate room at risk.
“Senator Harris will be in the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned,” said Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson for Harris. “If the Trump administration’s war on masks has become a war on security shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their Covid response is a failure.”
Mr. Pence has tested negative for the virus multiple times in the past few days, according to his aides, although the vice president had interacted frequently with numerous White House advisors who have tested positive since.
Mr. Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, also said that a University of Utah epidemiologist, who hosts the debate, “told us there is no scientific reason for the plexiglass.” In fact, the Cleveland Clinic is overseeing health protocols during the debate.
Ground rules for debates are often the subject of delicate negotiations between the campaigns and the debate committee, and it is not uncommon for issues to flare up in the hours leading up to the event.
Coronavirus outbreak in the White House
Mr. Pence’s attempt to lift a safety measure, however, was notable in light of the myriad of health concerns related to organizing an indoor event when the president and a significant number of his senior advisers he contracted the virus, along with several senators and a senior military leader.
An aide to Mr. Pence earlier this week expressed contempt for using barriers, suggesting they could be used to make a candidate appear weak. “If Senator Harris wants to use a fortress around her, do it,” said aide, Katie Miller.
A virtual event is also under consideration for the upcoming debate between Trump and Biden, although such discussions remain at a preliminary stage, according to two people familiar with the committee’s deliberations.
Much remains unknown about that debate, even if Trump will be good enough to participate and whether Biden’s team would be comfortable sharing an indoor stage with a president who has been contagious.
Mr. Trump’s aides insist that he intends to be there. Some of those close to the president discussed the possibility of holding the two remaining debates outdoors, noting that Mr. Biden has participated in external forums.
For Wednesday’s Vice President meeting, the gap on stage between Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence will be 12 feet 3 inches – five inches shorter than the distance that separated Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden last week in Cleveland. The moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, will sit at the same distance from the candidates.
Organizers pledged to expel all members of the public who refuse to wear a face mask after Mr. Trump’s family and aides removed their masks in the debate room in defiance of the rules set by the Cleveland Clinic. “If someone is not wearing a mask, they will be escorted out,” the debate committee said in a memo, although it did not specify how the policy would be applied.
Chris Wallace, the Fox News host who moderated the Cleveland debate, said that Mr. Trump was not tested in advance by the Cleveland Clinic, with the organizers relying on an “honor system” by which campaigns should have reported on their candidate’s health.
Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence “will be tested by Covid before the debate,” the commission said, but which entity would oversee that test remained unclear. There will be no handshakes or “physical greetings” between Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence, or opening or closing statements.
Sydney Ember contributed to the reporting.